HELENA — The Montana Capitol is known as “The People’s House” partially because of how accessible government is in the Treasure State. Whether you’re a lawmaker or an elementary student, you have a right to have your voice heard in the legislative process.
On Tuesday, the House State Administration Committee was jam-packed with fourth-grade students from Vaughn lobbying to have Montana take a definitive stance on huckleberries.
“I am here today to ask you to vote for House Bill 880 to make huckleberry our state fruit,” said Vaughn School elementary student Chevrolet Hayes.
The students in Mrs. Amy Brooks’ class have been learning about state government. They recently modeled how a bill gets passed with students serving as legislators and a governor.
“I was so encouraged by their enthusiasm I asked their teacher, Mrs. Brooks, if they would be interested, because Montana didn’t have an official fruit, that maybe they would do the process of what maybe our state fruit could be,” explained Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway, R-Great Falls, who is the sponsor of HB 880. “I’m just so proud of them and the efforts they’ve taken to actually, physically be here and be a part of the process before you.”
Montana is home to several beloved fruits and berries. In an effort of fairness, the students conducted a survey to determine what fruit they’d back.
“We voted on Flathead cherries, chokecherries and huckleberries. And huckleberries took the lead in our school,” Brooks told the committee.
The students then worked with Rep. Sheldon-Galloway to draft legislation.
On Tuesday, each student presented testimony about why lawmakers should pick huckleberries to be the state fruit.
Some students pointed to how huckleberries played a key role in the history of Montana tribes.
“Indians used dried huckleberries to provide nourishment throughout the winter. Indians would mix dried huckleberries with meat,” noted Josephine Smith. “Indians used huckleberries as mouthwash and medicine.”
Other students, like Adam Cottrell, pointed to how the berries are a preferred food for many Montana animals.
“Grizzly bears depend on huckleberries as a critical food source to fatten up before winter hibernation. The grizzly bear is also our state animal,” testified Cottrell. “It would be amazing to have a state fruit the state animal eats.”
The students also pointed out the potential health benefits of huckleberries.
“Huckleberries are high in antioxidants which helps protect the body from the effects of high blood sugar, including kidney damage, poor tissue healing and a diabetic condition that involves the growth of abnormal blood vessels in the retina,” explained fourth-grade student Addie Brooks.
Following the proponents testimony, lawmakers were ripe with questions for the students. Huckleberry ice cream sandwiches were also provided to everyone in attendance.
“So if we make the huckleberry our state fruit, am I going to be restricted on how much I can go pick and eat to get myself healthy?” Rep. Denise Baum, D-Billings, asked of the students.
“I don’t think it matters how much you pick and eat, but it might turn your poop purple if you eat it,” answered Brooks, which brought smiles and laughter to the committee members.
The House State Administration Committee unanimously voted to send the bill to the floor, and members noted just how impressed they were with the kids.
“They had a lot of great facts when they were giving their proponent testimony. A lot of stuff that I didn’t even know about huckleberries. And when they came up to answer the questions they did a great job, they were well prepared,” Chair Julie Dooling, R-Townsend, told MTN after the hearing.
While huckleberries are generally beloved in Montana, it doesn’t mean the bill is guaranteed to pass. The Treasure State is also home to Flathead cherries and chokecherries whose fans may lobby to have their preferred fruit be named “state fruit”. However, as the students were keen to point out, chokecherries are native to most of the country and the term “Flathead cherries” refers to many non-native cherry species that are cultivated in the Flathead area.
The only other state to name huckleberries their state fruit is Idaho, with the Idaho Legislature adopting the berries as state fruit in 2000.